Standing next to his young daughter in waist-deep water off Fripp Island on Friday afternoon, Craig Morris felt something softly nudge his leg.
Seconds later, something pulled 6-year-old Ella under the water.
That “something” was a shark, he said.
The 37-year-old father of three quickly pulled the child to the surface.
That’s when he saw the blood and the 9-inch gash on the little girl’s leg, said Heidi Morris, Craig’s wife and Ella’s mother.
“He threw the boogie board they had been using (away) and squeezed her leg together,” said Heidi Morris of the 1 p.m. incident near the Fripp Island Beach Club. “Then he carried her up the beach and booked it to the fire house. There was lots of blood. You could see her bone.”
A Beaufort County paramedic and Fripp Island Fire officers treated Ella until an ambulance arrived and took her to Beaufort Memorial Hospital.
It took 22 stitches to close the bite. Ella was released later that day, Heidi Morrris said.
The family, including sons Jackson, 8, and Parker, 9, of Marietta, Ga., were enjoying the final day of a week-long vacation when the incident occurred, she said. It was their first time vacationing on Fripp.
“We just loved it,” she said. “Earlier in the day, I had even posted pictures and a comment on my Facebook page that we were so happy with our experience. Later that day, I had to tell people about the shark.”
A RARE OCCURRENCE
Emergency room doctors told the family the shark was probably small, between four and five feet long, Heidi Morris said.
Mel Bell, director of the Office of Fisheries Management for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, agreed.
Ella’s wound looked like four smaller bites in a row, probably from a small shark. Typically, a swimmer would see the dorsal fin of a larger animal before it struck, Bell said.
“What you have with sharks is a test bite, to see what it is,” he said. “Then they usually take off, because you’re not a desired food item.”
DNR Sgt. Michael Paul Thomas said Tuesday there is no way to confirm whether the youngster’s wound was inflicted by a shark.
Because shark attacks are so rare, there is no protocol for reporting bites.
In South Carolina, the most recent shark attack that resulted in death was in 1883, Bell said.
“We’re still not sure what kind of shark it was,” he said.
In July 2006, an Ohio man said he was bitten by a shark at Hilton Head Island’s Singleton Beach. The wound required about a dozen stitches on his leg above his ankle. Authorities never confirmed the attack as the work of a shark, but the man said the teeth marks and puncture wounds were evidence enough for him.
In June of that year, a Missouri girl was bitten while playing in about two feet of water near the Breakers resort area of Coligny Beach.
Earlier in the month, a 14-year-old girl was bitten while swimming off Pawleys Island while a 21-year-old woman suffered a foot injury during a shark encounter off Kiawah Island.
Still, shark bites are relatively rare occurrences.
According to statistics compiled by the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File, people are 30 times more likely to be struck by lightning.
Thomas said tracking the area shark population is not an exact science, but called the number robust.
“We always have a fairly large number of sharks in our waters,” Thomas said.
He attributed that to deep waters, healthy estuaries and plenty of fish to eat.
“Port Royal and St. Helena sounds are two deep areas for them to come into and spawn, and we have an abundance of fish,” Thomas said.
‘I’M NOT SCARED’
While the incident left her parents shaken, Ella was the picture of courage and composure.
Her mother was amazed at the child’s attitude in the emergency room.
“She was fine, acted like there was absolutely nothing wrong,” Heidi Morris said.
Since the encounter, the six-year-old has continued to be upbeat and chatty, her mother said.
“Yesterday (Monday) all day, she wore a shark T-shirt,” she said.
Her parents said they were happy there was no severe nerve or muscle damage. A doctor said Monday the youngster’s wound was healing well and she should be up and walking in a day or two, her mother said.
Minutes before the attack, Ella had been in the water alone, her mother said.
“We were lucky, because her dad came up and put his arms around her right before it happened,” she said. “I think she felt safe because her daddy was right there.”
“I’m not scared,” Ella told her mother after the attack.
She said something else, too.
“I’ll go back in the water.”